June 7, 2013
Ocean plants produce some 50% of the planet’s oxygen. Seawater absorbs a quarter of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. Ocean currents distribute heat around the globe, regulating weather patterns and climate. And, for those who take pleasure in life’s simple rewards, a seaweed extract keeps your peanut butter and ice cream at the right consistency!
Nonetheless, those of us who can’t see the ocean from our window still feel a disconnect—because the ocean feels far away, it’s easy to forget the critical role the ocean plays in human life and to think that problems concerning the ocean will only harm those people that fish or make their living directly from the sea. But this isn’t true: the sea is far more important than that.
Every year, scientists learn more about the top threats to the ocean and what we can do to counter them. So for tomorrow’s World Oceans Day, here’s a run-down of what we’ve learned just in the past 12 months.
This year, we got the news that the apparent “slow down” in global warming may just be the ocean shouldering the load by absorbing more heat than usual. But this is no cause to celebrate: the extra heat may be out of sight, but it shouldn’t be out of mind. Ocean surface temperatures have been rising incrementally since the early 20th century, and the past three decades have been warmer than we’ve ever observed before. In fact, waters off the U.S. East Coast were hotter in 2012 than the past 150 years. This increase is already affecting wildlife. For example, fish are shifting their ranges globally to stay in the cooler water they prefer, altering ecosystems and fisheries’ harvests.
Coral reefs are highly susceptible to warming: warm water (and other environmental changes) drives away the symbiotic algae that live inside coral animals and provide them food. This process, called bleaching, can kill corals outright by causing them to starve to death, or make it more likely that they will succumb to disease. A study out this year found that even if we reduce our emissions and stop warming the planet beyond 2°C, the number considered to be safe for most ecosystems, around 70% of corals will degrade and die by 2030.
Although coral reefs can be quite resilient and can survive unimaginable disturbances, we need to get moving on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and creating protected areas where other stressors such as environmental pollutants are reduced.
More than a hit of acid
The ocean doesn’t just absorb heat from the atmosphere: it also absorbs carbon dioxide directly, which breaks down into carbonic acid and makes seawater more acidic. Since preindustrial times, the ocean has become 30% more acidic and scientists are just starting to unravel the diverse responses ecosystems and organisms have to acidification.
And it really is a variety: some organisms (the “winners”) may not be harmed by acidification at all. Sea urchin larvae, for instance, develop just fine, despite having calcium carbonate skeletons that are susceptible to dissolving. Sponges that drill into shells and corals show an ability to drill faster in acidic seawater, but to the detriment of the organisms they’re boring into.
Nonetheless, there will be plenty of losers. This year saw the first physical evidence of acidification in the wild: the shells of swimming snails called pteropods showed signs of dissolution in Antarctica. Researchers previously found that oyster larvae fail under acidic conditions, potentially explaining recent oyster hatchery collapses and smaller oysters. Acidification may also harm other fisheries.
Plastic, plastic, everywhere
Americans produced 31 million tons of plastic trash in 2010, and only eight percent of that was recycled. Where does the remaining plastic go? A lot of it ends up in the ocean.
Since last World Oceans Day, trash has reached the deep-sea and the remote Southern Ocean, two of the most pristine areas on Earth. Most of the plastic trash in the ocean is small—a few centimeters or less—and can easily be consumed by animals, with damaging consequences. Some animals get hit on two fronts: when already dangerous plastic degrades in their stomachs it leaches toxic chemicals into their systems. Laysan albatross chicks are fed the bits of plastic by their parents in lieu of their typical diet and one-third of fish in the English Channel have nibbled on plastic.
Where have all the fish gone?
A perennial problem for the ocean, overfishing has only gotten worse with the advent of highly advanced gear. Despite fishing fleets going farther and deeper, the fishing gains are not keeping up with the increased effort.
Our brains can’t keep up either: even as we catch fewer fish, we acclimate to the new normal, adjust to the shifting baseline, and forget the boon that used to be, despite the fact that our memories are long enough to realize that most of the world’s fisheries (especially the small ones that aren’t regulated) are in decline.
Thankfully, those responsible for managing our fisheries are aware of what’s at stake. New knowledge about fish populations and their role in ecosystems can lead to recovery. A report from March 2013 shows that two-thirds of U.S. fish species that are closely managed due to their earlier declines are now considered rebuilt, or on their way.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal. This post was co-authored by Emily Frost and Hannah Waters.
May 17, 2013
Our oceans are taking a beating from overfishing, pollution, acidification and warming, putting at risk the many creatures who make their home in seawater. But when most people think of struggling ocean species, the first animals that come to mind are probably whales, seals or sea turtles.
Sure, many of these large (and adorable) animals play an important part in the marine ecosystem and are threatened with extinction due to human activities, but in fact, of the 94 marine species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), only 45 are marine mammals and sea turtles. As such, these don’t paint the whole picture of what happens under the sea. What about the remaining 49 that form a myriad of other important parts of the underwater web?
These less charismatic members of the list include corals, sea birds, mollusks and, of course, fish. They fall under two categories: endangered or threatened. According to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (pdf), one of the groups responsible for implementing the ESA, a species is considered endangered if it faces imminent extinction, and and a species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered in the future. A cross section of these less-known members of the ESA’s list are described in detail below.
1. Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), pictured above, is one of two species of coral listed as threatened under the ESA, although both are under review for reclassification to endangered. A very important reef-building coral in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, it primarily reproduces through asexual fragmentation. This means that its branches break off and reattach to a substrate on the ocean bottom where they grow into new colonies.
While this is a great recovery method when only part of a colony is damaged, it doesn’t work so well when most or all of the colony is killed—which often is the result from disturbances afflicting these corals. Since the 1980s, staghorn coral populations have steeply declined due to outbreaks of coral disease, increased sedimentation, bleaching and damage from hurricanes. Although only two coral species are currently on the ESA list, 66 additional coral species have been proposed for listing and are currently under review.
2. The white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni), a large sea snail that can grow to ten inches long, was the first marine invertebrate to be listed under the ESA but its population hasn’t recovered. The commercial fishery for white abalone collapsed three decades ago because, being spawners that jet their eggs and sperm into the water for fertilization with the hope that the two will collide, the animals depend on a large enough population of males and females being in close proximity to one another to reproduce successfully.
Less than 0.1% of its pre-fished population survives today, and research published in 2012 showed that it has continued to decline since its ESA listing more than a decade ago. The researchers recommended human intervention, and aquaculture efforts have begun in an effort to save the species.
3. Johnson’s seagrass (Halophila johnsonii), the lone marine plant species listed, is classified as threatened and makes coastal habitats and nurseries for fish and provides a food source for the also-endangered West Indian manatees and green sea turtles. However, its most important role may be long-term ocean carbon storage, known as blue carbon: seagrass beds can store more carbon than the world’s forests per hectare.
The main threats to Johnson’s seagrass are nutrient and sediment pollution, and damage from boating, dredging and storms. Its plight is aggravated by its tiny geographic range–it is only found on the southeast coast of Florida. The species may have more trouble recovering than other seagrass species because it seems to only reproduce asexually–while other seagrasses can reproduce like land plants, by producing a flower that is then fertilized by clumps of pollen released underwater, the Johnson’s seagrass relies on the sometimes slow process of new stems sprouting from the buried root systems of individual plants.
4. The short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) differs from some of its neighbors on the ESA list in that an extra layer of uncertainty is added to the mix: During breeding season, they nest on islands near Japan, but after breeding season ends, they spread their wings and fly to the U.S. In the late 19th century, the beautiful birds are thought to have been fairly common from coastal California up through Alaska. But in the 1940s, their population dropped from the tens of millions to such a small number that they were thought to be extinct. Their incredible decline was due to hunters collecting their feathers, compounded by volcanic damage to their breeding islands in the 1930s.
Today they are doing better, with over 2,000 birds counted in 2008, but only a few islands remain as nesting sites and they continue to be caught as bycatch, meaning that they are often mistakenly hooked by longline fishing gear.
5. Salmon are a familiar fish frequently seen on the menu. But not all species are doing well enough to be served on our plates. Salmon split their time between freshwater (where they are born and later spawn) and the ocean (where they spend their time in between). Historically, Atlantic salmon in the U.S. were found in most major rivers on the Atlantic coast north of the Hudson, which flows through New York State. But damming, pollution and overfishing have pushed the species to a point where they are now only found along a small section of the Maine coast. Twenty-eight populations of Pacific salmon are also listed as threatened or endangered. Efforts on both coasts are underway to rebuild populations through habitat restoration, pollution reduction and aquaculture.
The five organisms listed here are just a few of the marine species on the ESA’s list. In fact, scientists expect that as they learn more about the oceans, they will reveal threats to more critters and plants.
“The charismatic marine species, like large whales [and] sea turtles…were the first to captivate us and pique our curiosity to look under the waves,” says Jonathan Shannon, from the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected
Species Resources. “While we are learning more about the ocean and how it works every day, we still have much to learn about the different species in the ocean and the health of their populations.”
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
April 25, 2013
Penguins seem a bit out of place on land, with their stand-out black jackets and clumsy waddling. But once you see their grace in the water, you know that’s where they’re meant to be–they are well-adapted to life in the ocean.
1. Depending on which scientist you ask, there are 17–20 species of penguins alive today, all of which live in the southern half of the globe. The most northerly penguins are Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), which occasionally poke their heads north of the equator.
2. While they can’t fly through the air with their flippers, many penguin species take to the air when they leap from the water onto the ice. Just before taking flight, they release air bubbles from their feathers. This cuts the drag on their bodies, allowing them to double or triple their swimming speed quickly and launch into the air.
4. Penguins don’t wear tuxedos to make a fashion statement: it helps them be camouflaged while swimming. From above, their black backs blend into the dark ocean water and, from below, their white bellies match the bright surface lit by sunlight. This helps them avoid predators, such as leopard seals, and hunt for fish unseen.
5. The earliest known penguin fossil was found in 61.6 million-year old Antarctic rock, about 4-5 million years after the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. Waimanu manneringi stood upright and waddled like modern day penguins, but was likely more awkward in the water. Some fossil penguins were much larger than any penguin living today, reaching 4.5 feet tall!
6. Like other birds, penguins don’t have teeth. Instead, they have backward-facing fleshy spines that line the inside of their mouths. These help them guide their fishy meals down their throat.
7. Penguins are carnivores: they feed on fish, squid, crabs, krill and other seafood they catch while swimming. During the summer, an active, medium-sized penguin will eat about 2 pounds of food each day, but in the winter they’ll eat just a third of that.
8. Eating so much seafood means drinking a lot of saltwater, but penguins have a way to remove it. The supraorbital gland, located just above their eye, filters salt from their bloodstream, which is then excreted through the bill—or by sneezing! But this doesn’t mean they chug seawater to quench their thirst: penguins drink meltwater from pools and streams and eat snow for their hydration fix.
9. Another adaptive gland—the oil (also called preen) gland—produces waterproofing oil. Penguins spread this across their feathers to insulate their bodies and reduce friction when they glide through the water.
10. Once a year, penguins experience a catastrophic molt. (Yes, that’s the official term.) Most birds molt (lose feathers and regrow them) a few at a time throughout the year, but penguins lose them all at once. They can’t swim and fish without feathers, so they fatten themselves up beforehand to survive the 2–3 weeks it takes to replace them.
11. Feathers are quite important to penguins living around Antarctica during the winter. Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) have the highest feather density of any bird, at 100 feathers per square inch. In fact, the surface feathers can get even colder than the surrounding air, helping to keep the penguin’s body stays warm.
12. All but two penguin species breed in large colonies for protection, ranging from 200 to hundreds of thousands of birds. (There’s safety in numbers!) But living in such tight living quarters leads to an abundance of penguin poop—so much that it stains the ice! The upside is that scientists can locate colonies from space just by looking for dark ice patches.
13. Climate change will likely affect different penguin species differently—but in the Antarctic, it appears that the loss of krill, a primary food source, is the main problem. In some areas with sea ice melt, krill density has decreased 80 percent since the 1970s, indirectly harming penguin populations. However, some colonies of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) have grown as the melting ice exposes more rocky nesting areas.
14. Of the 17 penguin species, the most endangered is New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes): only around 4,000 birds survive in the wild today. But other species are in trouble, including the erect-crested penguin (Eudyptes sclateri) of New Zealand, which has lost approximately 70 percent of its population over the past 20 years, and the Galapagos penguin, which has lost more than 50 percent since the 1970s.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
March 29, 2013
If you were to hit the seafloor and continue to travel down, you’d run into an ecosystem unlike any other on earth. Beneath several hundred meters of seafloor sediment is the Earth’s crust: thick layers of lava rock running with cracks that cover around 70% of the planet’s surface. Seawater flows through the cracks, and this system of rock-bound rivulets is enormous: it’s the largest aquifer on earth, containing 4% of global ocean volume, says Mark Lever, an ecologist who studies anaerobic (no-oxygen) carbon cycling at Aarhus University in Denmark.
The sub-seafloor crust may also be the largest ecosystem on earth, according to a new study by Lever, published this month in Science. For seven years, he incubated 3.5 million-year old basalt rock collected from 565 meters below the ocean floor–the depth of nearly two stacked Eiffel towers–and found living microbes. These microbes live far away from the thriving bacterial communities at mid-ocean ridges, and survive by slowly churning sulfur and other minerals into energy.
But just how big is this chemically-fueled ecosystem that survives entirely without oxygen? If the results from his sample, collected from below the seafloor off the coast of Washington state, are similar to those found across the planet, then diverse microbial communities could survive throughout the ocean’s crust, covering two-thirds of the earth’s surface and potentially going miles deep.
The sub-seafloor crust has plenty of space and energy-rich minerals–a welcoming potential habitat for a large microbial community–“but we have no idea what the ecosystem looks like,” says Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Mark’s evidence would point to it being a very different world.”
Microbes that get their energy from minerals, rather than from sunlight, are far from rare. The most well known of these so-called chemoautotrophic or chemosynthetic bacteria are those found at hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. Some of these bacteria live symbiotically with giant tubeworms, mussels and clams, providing chemically-produced energy to these larger organisms as they “breathe” the sulfur-rich water erupting from the vent–not unlike how plants convert sunlight into energy at the surface. Chemosynthetic microbes are also found in the rotting and oxygen-poor muck of salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass beds—“any place you’ve got stinky black mud, you can have chemoautotrophy,” says Chuck Fisher, a deep-sea biologist at Pennsylvania State University in College Park.
But what makes Lever’s sub-seafloor microbes different is that they don’t use any oxygen at all. The symbiotic bacteria at hydrothermal vents are often described as “life without sunlight,” but they still rely on sunlight indirectly by using sun-produced oxygen in the chemical reaction to generate energy. Chemosynthetic microbes in salt marshes feed on decomposing plants and animals, which got their energy from sunlight. Even deep-sea sediment is accumulated from an assortment of dead animals, plants, microbes and fecal pellets that relies on light energy.
The oceanic crust microbes, on the other hand, rely entirely on
non-oxygen-containing molecules derived from rock and completely removed from photosynthesis, such as sulfate, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. “In that sense it’s a parallel universe, in that it runs on a different type of energy,” says Lever. These molecules provide a lot less energy than oxygen, creating a sort of microbial slow food movement. So instead of dividing and growing quickly like many oxygen-based bacteria, Fisher suspects that microbes in the Earth’s crust may divide once every hundred or thousand years.
But just because they’re slow doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. “There are lots of data that there is a large, very productive biosphere under the surface,” says Fisher.
In addition, microbial population sizes in different areas of the crust may vary greatly, Huber notes. Through her studies on the fluid found between the cracks in the crust, she says that in some areas the fluid contains about the same number of microbes as standard deep-sea water collected at ocean depths of 4,000 meters (2.5 miles): around 10,000 microbial cells per milliliter. In other regions, such as at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean where Lever found his microbes, there are fewer cells, around 8,000 microbes per milliliter. And in other regions, such as in non-oxygenated fluid deep in hydrothermal vents, there can be around 10 times more.
It’s not just the number of microbes that vary depending on location–it’s possible that different microbial species are found in different types of crust. “Different types of rock and different types of chemistry should result in different types of microbes,” says Andreas Teske, a deep-sea microbial ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author on Lever’s paper. The Juan de Fuca Ridge is a relatively hot area bursting with new rock, which tends to be made of more reactive minerals and thus able to provide more energy. Other parts of the crust are older, composed of different minerals, and cooler. And, in some regions, oxygenated water reaches down to the cracks.
It’s this infiltrating seawater that keeps this sub-seafloor ecosystem from existing on a completely separate plane from our oxygenated one. “The crust plays a significant role in influencing the chemical composition of the ocean and the atmosphere, ultimately influencing [nutrient] cycles on earth,” says Lever. Some of the compounds created by oceanic crust microbes from rock are water soluble, and will eventually enter the ocean. Sulfur, for example, is present in magma—but after the microbes use it for energy, it’s converted to sulfate. Then it dissolves and becomes an important nutrient in the ocean food chain.
Lever’s find of a microbial community in the crust could catalyze the scientific community to answer these questions. For example, what kinds of microbes are found where, do they interact through interconnected cracks in the rock, and what role do they play in mineral and nutrient cycling? In some ways, it’s very basic exploratory work. “A lot of what we do on the seafloor is similar to what we’re doing on Mars right now,” says Huber. “Controlling [NASA’s Mars Rover] Curiosity is very similar to operating an ROV under the ocean.”
March 15, 2013
Whether they’re on a rain-soaked sidewalk, in the compost bin or on the end of a fish hook, the worms most people know are of the segmented variety. But what about all the other worms out there?
With more than 1,000 species of ribbon worms (phylum Nemertea), most found in the ocean, there is a huge range of sizes and lifestyles among the various types. A defining characteristic of ribbon worms is the presence of a proboscis—a unique muscular structure inside the worm’s body. When attacking prey, they compress their bodies to push out the proboscis like the finger of a latex glove turned inside-out.
Here are 14 other fun facts about them:
1. The largest species of ribbon worm is the bootlace worm, Lineus longissimus, which can be found writhing among rocks in the waters of the North Sea. Not only is it the largest nemertean, but it may also be the longest animal on the planet! Uncertainty remains because these stretchy worms are difficult to accurately measure, but they have been found at lengths of over 30 meters (98 feet) and are believed to even grow as long as 60 meters (197 feet)—longer than the blue whale! Despite their length they are less than an inch around.
2. The smallest ribbon worm species is less than a centimeter long, and resembles a piece of thread more closely than what we think of as a worm.
3. Ribbon worms have highly developed muscles that allow them to contract their bodies, shrinking to a tenth of their extended length when threatened.
4. Talk about stretching: ribbon worm muscles don’t just contract–they can also expand, allowing some species to swallow prey (such as other kinds of worms, fish, crustaceans, snails and clams) that are more than double the width of their narrow bodies
5. The proboscis varies among the species. Some are sticky or have suckers to help grasp prey, and some species, like those in the order Hoplonemertea, even stab their prey with a sharp spike, called a stylet, on the proboscis.
6. Because the stylets often are lost during an attack, the worms continually make and use replacements that they have in reserve in internal pouches.
7. As a second line of defense, many ribbon worms are poisonous and taste bad. Several species contain tetrodotoxin, the infamous pufferfish venom that can induce paralysis and death by asphyxia. It’s still not known exactly how the toxins are produced—they may linger in the worms from ingested bacteria—but they deter predators from taking a bite. Some even eject toxins from their proboscis.
8. Some ribbon worms sneak up on their prey, lying in wait buried in the sandy seafloor. One species of worm will pop up from its home in the sand when a fiddler crab walks over. The worm will cover the prey with toxic slime from its proboscis, paralyzing the crab so the ribbon worm can slide into a crack in the shell and eat the crab from the inside out.
9. Not all ribbon worms are predators – some are parasites. One genus of ribbon worms, Carcinonemertes, lives as a parasite on crabs, eating the crab’s eggs and any animals that it can find from the confines of its host.
10. Most ribbon worms produce a slippery mucus that covers their bodies and helps them to navigate through the mud and rocks on the ocean floor.
11. Some also use the mucus as a protective coat to keep from drying out when exposed to air during low tides. Others use their proboscis to move by attaching it to an object and pulling themselves forward. This same mucus makes them hard to catch! And not only by predators: scientists trying to catch the worms have a difficult time.
12. Marine ribbon worms usually have separate sexes and temporary sex organs. Rows of gonads line the inside of their bodies to produce either eggs or sperm. When they are ready to be released, the gonad ducts form on demand and are reabsorbed after reproduction.
13. Most ribbon worms have direct development: a miniature version of the worm hatches from a fertilized egg. However, the young of one group of ribbon worms, the heteronemerteans, emerge in a bizarre larval stage that looks like a flying saucer. After a few weeks to months living and feeding in the open ocean, a small worm develops inside and, when it’s ready, it eats its way out of the original larva encasing. Then the worm falls to the sea floor where it spends the rest of its life.
14. Many ribbon worms can regenerate when a predator takes a bite, healing their broken ends. One worm species, Ramphogordius sanguineus, has an exceptional ability to regenerate: if any part of their body is severed (except for the very tip of their tail where there are no nerves), it can regrow into a new worm. This new individual may be smaller than the worm it came from, but more than 200,000 worms can result from an individual that is only 15 centimeters (6 inches) long!
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.